Dermabrasion vs. Microdermabrasion: What's the Difference?

Woman with clear, glowing skin on face, neck, and shoulders

Ohlamour Studio/Stocksy

Removing dead or damaged skin is the first step to making way for a healthier, more radiant complexion. Of course, there are about three billion (we’ve counted) ways to do it: sand, salt, chemicals, lasers, dry brushes—you name it. But it’s not just a total grab-bag of resurfacing. 

Physical exfoliation—literal “abrasion”—is a surefire way to remove dead skin and, possibly, wrinkles and scars. How much magic you’re able to conjure with these procedures depends on how hard the abrasion actually is. The intensity is the difference between dermabrasion and microdermabrasion, two popular resurfacing treatments that, though similar in name, each have their own methods and results. 

So what’s the difference and which is best for your needs? We spoke to a plastic surgeon and a dermatologist to get the lowdown on both dermabrasion and microdermabrasion, plus other exfoliation treatments you can consider on your journey to a renewed glow.

Meet the Expert

  • Jaime DeRosa, MD, is a double board-certified plastic surgeon and the founder of the DeRosa Center Facial Plastic Surgery and Med Spa in Boston. 
  • Joshua Zeichner, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City.

What Is Dermabrasion?

Dermabrasion is a skin-resurfacing technique that involves a rotating sanding device (kind of like the one from high school wood shop class) to help smooth out scars or remove wrinkles. “The device has various sizes and roughnesses at the tip that work by ‘sanding’ down the skin,” says double board-certified plastic surgeon Jaime DeRosa, MD. “It removes the top layers of skin, thus promoting new skin to emerge.”  

If this sounds intense, that’s because it is. Not only should you be under general anesthesia for the procedure, it will leave your skin raw and bleeding, and can take weeks to heal. Because of this, it should only be done by a certified medical professional (such as a dermatologist or facial plastic surgeon). “This procedure has largely fallen out of favor because of potential risks of scarring, pain, and infection,” says board-certified dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, MD.

What Is Microdermabrasion?

For those who want a more transformative result than traditional exfoliation but aren't looking for the risks and intensity of dermabrasion, microdermabrasion is a game-changing, friendlier option. “Microdermabrasion is a treatment that can be performed by an aesthetician and works by lightly sanding the outermost layer of the skin,” DeRosa says.   

Unlike traditional dermabrasion, microdermabrasion does not cause open or raw skin, which makes recovery much easier but also means you should be realistic about the limits of what to expect. “It can improve skin radiance, but does not penetrate deep enough to offer any benefits in wrinkles or scars,” Zeichner says.

Dermabrasion vs. Microdermabrasion

Dermabrasion and microdermabrasion are both physical resurfacing treatments, meaning they leverage physical, sandpaper-like grit to lift damage, buff off dry skin, and potentially lessen the appearance of scarring or wrinkles.

The physical exfoliation aspect is where the similarities stop. Dermabrasion is an intense, invasive procedure that must be performed with at least some sort of anesthetic (preferably general anesthesia) and by a medical professional, DeRosa emphasizes. It can improve deep wrinkles or scars, but involves fairly lengthy downtime. 

In contrast, microdermabrasion is a non-invasive treatment that can be performed by an aesthetician and involves light physical exfoliation to remove dead skin and light, surface-level damage, DeRosa says. Because it’s much gentler, patients can expect a fresh, radiant glow, but it won’t be able to target deep wrinkles or scars. The downtime is also significantly more manageable: “The procedure often leaves a rosy glow for a half hour, but otherwise, there is no downtime or pain,” Zeichner explains.

Which Should You Choose?

Choosing between dermabrasion and microdermabrasion comes down to defining your needs and goals. You’ll want to consult with your dermatologist about which is best for you (especially because if you do decide to go the dermabrasion route, you’ll need a medical professional to perform the procedure). 

Microdermabrasion will suit most people’s needs—gently removing surface-level skin for a clearer, glowing, and more youthful complexion. If your goal is to remove deep wrinkles or scars, dermabrasion will yield more dramatic results, but given the extreme nature of the procedure, Zeichner tells us there are likely better options to try first.

Other Resurfacing Options

If this all sounds a little too, well, sandpaper-y for your taste, don’t fret. There are plenty of other ways to get smoother skin, and some of them may be more recommended for your specific needs. 

  • Dermaplaning: ”My favorite in-office treatment is dermaplaning, which uses a blade to gently remove vellus hair (peach fuzz) and the outermost layer of dead skin,” DeRosa says. This is a great alternative for gentle, superficial resurfacing. The blades are very small and easy to use, and you can purchase disposable facial razors like the Schick Hydro Silk Touch-Up Multipurpose Exfoliating Facial Razor ($6) to do upkeep at home. 
  • Laser Resurfacing: “Most resurfacing procedures are performed with lasers that are much more specific in their targeting, safer, and more effective,” Zeichner tells us. “Fractionated lasers work by punching microscopic holes in the skin and taking advantage of the skin's wound-healing response.  By creating new collagen, the skin tone, texture, pigmentation, and scarring improve.”  
  • Chemical Peels: Chemical peels are best performed by a dermatologist or other medical professional, DeRosa says. The treatment involves a chemical solution (often the same glycolic, carbolic, salicylic, or lactic acids found in your skincare products, only at a higher concentration) to penetrate the skin and leave it looking fresher and clearer. 

The Final Takeaway

Dermabrasion and microdermabrasion are both in-office, physical resurfacing treatments that aim to reveal smoother, glowier skin. Dermabrasion is best for dramatic results (like targeting deep wrinkles or scars), and microdermabrasion is a much gentler treatment that can accomplish light, superficial resurfacing. 

Because they both involve actual “abrasion” and injury to the skin—it's important to talk to your dermatologist about whether these procedures are the best fit for your needs or if there are other treatments (such as chemical peels or laser resurfacing) they may recommend.

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